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The excitement in the air was palpable. These Blazers were coming off a 4-1 road trip that included a road win over the Hornets. In some ways, that brought relief.
After all, the season got off to a rugged start with two home losses that both ended in heart-breaking fashion. Unlike last year when every close game was closed out by Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Joel Przybilla, and Steve Blake in victorious fashion, the losses to Atlanta and Denver felt like chokes.
That is not a word normally associated with Brandon Roy's Blazers and the murmuring had been getting loud.
This year's Blazer edition was expected to contend, not give away games. With Roy and Aldridge coming off major contract extensions, Greg Oden expected to be more like the player drafted than last year's surgery-slowed big man, and the return of Martell Webster from injury, all the pieces were in place.The road trip went a long way towards leading the fan base to think that this was the team we thought we had. Time for the tip-off. Detroit was staying in the game, but once more we saw Aldridge asserting himself.
Detroit briefly took the lead, only to see Portland go on a 13-0 run. The fans settled back, ready to watch the Blazers take advantage of their superior skills and home court advantage to reel in a blowout victory.
There were fast breaks, some premier defense, and a heavy dose of Blazer Stars with Aldridge and Roy scoring with regularity.
By the end of the third quarter, it was a comfortable 20-point lead. Time to sit back and enjoy the show.And there we find the difference between this year's team and last year's. This team has expectations. This team knows how good it is. The players know they are favorites to win almost every time out. Unless, of course, they stop working.
Suddenly the guards could not keep the ball. Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez took turns making turnovers that were highly uncharacteristic. Then Steve Blake went to work.His four turnover fourth quarter was the antithesis of expectations. The book on Blake is "steady point guard, doesn't make mistakes". The reality, at least for this game, was he looked panic-stricken, out-matched, and incapable of holding on to the ball.
Then Andre Miller managed to miss four consecutive free throws as the Pistons inched ever closer. It left him feeling lonely.By the time the Pistons got within one point with about a minute to go, Blazer fans were stunned and fearful. Were they about to see a third consecutive come-from-ahead home loss? What happened to this team that for two seasons thrived on pressure and tight games?
It did not help that when Blake clanked a rushed open jumper, there was a vast in-drawn breath from the entire stadium...only to see the ball bounce straight back to Blake who then drained a three that all but sealed it.So what is happening with this Blazer team? Even with Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw out with injuries, this is a team even more talented than the 54-28 team we watched last year. How did a team that thrived under pressure degenerate into a turnover-making, free throw-bricking, error-prone bunch of vulnerabilities?
It starts in an unexpected place. Not with two-time All-Star Brandon Roy. Not with new starter Greg Oden. And, despite some murmurings about his "slow start", not with LaMarcus Aldridge.It starts with Steve Blake.
Often maligned by Blazer fans for his Blake-fense deficiencies, his lack of ability to penetrate, and his modest assist totals, the more dedicated basketball fans understand what Blake brings to the team.He relieves Roy of the tedious chore of bringing the ball up court. He gets the team into its offensive sets and keeps the team rhythm going. He gets out of the way when it is time for Roy to handle the ball. He hits key shots, stretches the defense with timely and efficient three point shooting, and does not turn the ball over.
Until crunch time.For the first time in his career, Blake is a bigger liability on the offensive end. It is possible he is feeling the pressure of sharing time with Andre Miller. It is possible and indeed even probable he will get his groove back.
But it is also a fact that he is not performing the role we are used to seeing him perform.Exacerbating this is the fact the Blazers' second best— and being second best is not by much— fourth quarter player for the last three years has been Travis Outlaw. Game after game he struggles for three quarters, then turns into Supertrout in the fourth. He scores at will. He makes huge defensive stops. He scores again. And again.
Except now he is on the shelf for the next few months. Aldridge has never been a big-time late game player, at least to this point. Oden is still trying to shake off two missed free throws that he (incorrectly) feels meant a Blazer defeat. Miller is a train wreck at late-game pressure shots.That means the games rest on Roy's shoulders. It would be fine if he had that second guy the opponents had to key on such as he had with Outlaw last year. Without that, other teams can double and even triple team Roy, taking the ball out of his hands.
That puts it in the hands of Miller, whom teams foul expecting him to miss one free throw (and instead watch him miss both), or Blake, who seems to be trying to be Miller, driving into trouble, panicking, and passing it to the nearest fan.It is easily correctable. First, the Blazers need to be ready to shoot when they get the ball. Fernandez provided a glimpse of that with his trey that extended the Hawk game to overtime. But outside of Roy and Fernandez, there is a noticeable reticence to shoot.
That must be corrected.Until it is, Blazer fans will not need nail clippers...their teeth will be doing their fingernail grooming for the foreseeable future.